Thursday, 25 June 2020

Exercise and Nature

Exercise is one of the best ways to beat depression. The poet Alfred Tennyson used to take daily walks on the Downs near his home at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. Alastair Campbell and Matt Haig are runners and Winston Churchill used to lay bricks. Exercise makes you feel fitter and more alive and also releases feel-good endorphins into your system. 

Depression Hates Exercise

Predictably depression doesn't like exercise. In fact, depression will do whatever it can to prevent you from exercising. To start with depression makes you feel tired and weary - so that you will feel less inclined to want to exercise. Doing anything when you have depression can feel like hard work - very hard work. If you have leaden paralysis (which is the feeling that your arms and legs are very heavy) then even going up the stairs in your home can feel like Mount Everest.

To start with you may need to re-calibrate your perception of exercise. You may have to start very modestly. However, it is very important that you congratulate yourself for whatever you manage to do - no matter how small. Remember that the negative voice of depression will try to undermine anything that you do. After you've finished your exercise is often the time when the voice kicks in. If you've been for a short run, for instance, it might say:

'How far did you run? A mile? Is that all?'

'You used to be able to run that route so much faster before.'

'Why do you feel so tired when you're only managed a mile?'

 Remember that to exercise with depression is doubly difficult. It's like carrying another person round with you.

But you need to be aware that depression can also play other tricks on you. It can make you agoraphobic or, in my case, dizzy. It can also make you feel anxious about joining a gym or self conscious about wearing Lycra, or make you worry unnecessarily that your bike will break down.

One of the other benefits of exercise is that it can get you out into nature. Research has shown that being in the countryside can create serotonin and dopamine in our brains and/or reduce cortisol. Hence nature is very good for mental health. All natural places can boost our sense of well-being: woods, hills, moors, marshes, beaches, fields and lakes. In particular, it has been shown that being near water is good for mental health. It slows our heart beat and calms us down. In his book Bird Therapy Joe Harkness details how a love of bird watching and nature helped him recover after a nervous breakdown. He started a blog about his bird watching experiences and then secured crowd funding to publish his book in 2019. it has since gone on to become a bestseller - thanks to endorsements from the likes of Chris Packham.

I have to admit that since becoming ill five years ago I have failed to establish a regular exercise regime. I used to be a keen walker/hill-walker and a proficient mountain bike. However, clinical depression clobbered me with both dizziness and leaden paralysis. Since then I have managed to climb a few mountains: Great Gable, Blencathra and Haystacks in the Lake District and Cadair Idris in Wales - but on every occasion my body felt like concrete. It was as though gravity had increased ten fold or that I was hauling a rucksack full of bricks. The dizziness also made every step disorientating - as though all the horizons were out of sync.

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